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McDuff: What three things does drink especially provoke? Porter: Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and it unprovokes: it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off, it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him1.

INTRODUCTION Granted: approaching medieval literature as a modern reader presents its challenges, both because the language is often unfamiliar or even unintelligible and because we are entering a world whose values and frame of reference we no longer understand without special training. Making it palatable to a modern cinema audience may therefore seem an unattainable goal under the best of circumstances. The discussion in this paper focuses on two filmic renditions of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, an anonymous masterpiece composed between the eighth and tenth century based on fifth century literary motifs, vaguely identified historical events and common Germanic
W. SHAKESPEARE, Macbeth, in Complete Works, Harper Collins, Glasgow, 1994, Act II, Scene III.



folklore2 and contained in a single 10th or early 11th century manuscript, the London British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv. The filmic renditions analysed are Zemeckiss 2007 performance capture Beowulf (the Hollywood version), and Sturla Gunnarssons Beowulf and Grendel (2005, a Canadian-Icelandic production): they both deviate from the original poem, but given their closeness in date, the different treatment is so considerable as to warrant comparison. There are some obvious differences imposed by the quasi-animated medium in Hollywood-Beowulf (perhaps Hollywulf?), which allows for many more spectacular effects (and some ludicrous ones), and the quasi-archaeological rendition of material culture in Gunnarssons film, where the attention to detail is excruciating, down to the natural dyes used for the costumes, in order to avoid anachronism3. I will playfully enumerate at least fifty ways in which the original poem has been butchered, focusing mainly on drinking and feasting, but I will also argue that, while both films impose a modern interpretation of the events in the original plot, as well as adding characters and explaining away motives at will, the Canadian-Icelandic version at least offers a much more hopeful message of tolerance than the Hollywood version. Zemeckiss Beowulfs screenwriters, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary grossly and wilfully overinterpret motives, betraying the stern grandeur and complex nature of the original poem and essentially create a plot of a much more basic instinct type, which may be

2 Cf. R.D. FULK, R. E. B JORK, and J. D. NILES (eds.), in the Introduction to Klaebers Beowulf, 4th ed. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2008. 3 Cf. the directors commentary on the DVD version: S. GUNNARSSON (dir.) Beowulf and Grendel. 2005 film. With directors comments and interviews to cast and writers.



justifiable in terms of box office success, but it also reveals a sinister ideological twist of reducing all motivation behind every action to lust. Zemeckiss Beowulfs message entails that chopping enemies to bits is fine (plenty of gore and splatter confirms it), but sex and carnal desire (and their excesses as embodied by lust) are the root of all evils4. This particular point is hard to drive home when the producers aimed at a PG-13 rating, and this is one of the masterful ways in which Hollywulf solves the problem (see below), beckoning to an audience of barely legal male, video-game-toting teenagers, who certainly wont miss the beauty of the original text, since they barely read required texts for school. DRINKING AND DEBAUCHERY IN ZEMECKIS BEOWULF The Plot and the Figure of King Hrothgar The opening scene focuses on the banquet celebrating the completion of Heorot, the mead-hall built for feasting by Hrothgar, the Danish king. The warriors of the king engage in very loud cavorting, eating, drinking, burping, urinating collegially (while discussing the pros and cons of the new religion, Christianity), and exhibiting generally lecherous behavior. These are already six of the 50 ways to butcher Beowulf... This initial scene stands out because it essentially sets all themes of the film, or rather, variations on the main one )lust as the root of mankinds problems, which is in marked discordance with what the original poem portrayed. (Seven and counting).

See R. ZEMECKIS (dir.), Beowulf. DVD version of the 2007 film. (With directors comments and interviews to cast and writers).



The first element that stands out is the out-of-place delicate beauty of a girl, who )the viewer soon learns) is actually Wealhtheow, Horthgars queen. According to Germanic conventions, and to the original poem, the queen would indeed be expected to be at her companions side, also possibly serving mead and words of praise to the king and his warriors, according to a strict hierarchy of political and social importance. Instead in the film she looks disapprovingly at her husbands drunken and unbecoming demeanour. The queen, who looks about 17 years old in the film, makes her dislike obvious, and )can we blame her? Hrothgar is, as in the original text, presented as an old man: ... Hrothgar sat, / an old man among retainers; (l. 356, and cf. (3) below). Her youth and her behavior in the film add up to nine of the fifty ways to butcher Beowulf. In the poem, however, Hrothgar is the respected, essentially good, beloved and upright king of the Danes, who laments not being able to rid his country and his people of the scourge of Grendel, a monster with some human traits, who preys on his people, and kills them especially when they make merry in the mead-hall. Hrothgar is described in these terms in the poem, after a very flattering genealogy, in true Germanic style5:
(1) l. 64 The fortunes of war favoured Hrothgar. Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks, young followers, a force that grew to be a mighty army. So his mind turned to hall-building: he handed down orders for men to work on a great mead-hall

5 Unless otherwise noted, all translations are from Seamus Heaneys modern version of the poem: Beowulf, W.W. Norton & Co., New York-London, 2000.



meant to be a wonder of the world forever; it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense his God-given goods to young and old...

And later he is described as our noble king (l. 351), the protector of the Shieldings (i.e. the Danes, l. 371), and also (l. 919):
(2) ...the king himself, guardian of the ring-hoard, goodness in person, walked in majesty from the womens quarters with a numerous train, attended by his queen and her crowd of maidens, across the mead-hall.

Even when he accepts help, he is always described in a dignified light (l. 607):
(3) The grey-haired treasure-giver was glad; far-famed in battle, the prince of Bright-Danes and keeper of his people counted on Beowulf...

The image of the old king in Zemeckiss film is that of a fat, half-naked, drunken, and lecherous old fool (lets say 13). His only redeeming trait is that he does try to fight Grendel, who clearly avoids fighting the old king, since in the film, Hrothgar is Grendels human father (a very important 14). The hall, as the king declares, is to be a monument to merriment, joy, and fornication in the film, and alcoholic drinks flow, as huge roasted pigs are brought to the table, and plenty of joy and fornication, or generic ogling and debauchery abound. This would not necessarily be distasteful per se, but it becomes unsettling as the other pieces of the puzzle are revealed. Thus, Hrothgar )who sired Grendel the monster with a water-witch played by Angelina Jolie) has no heir, and this is related to his



shame, as Wealhtheow puts it when speaking to Beowulf: the shame and secret of having begotten a semi-human monster with a mere-woman, and more pragmatically the fact that Wealhtheow in the film refuses to sleep with him (no heirs6, no consummation: 16). This unconsummated marriage is well identified by a spiked board that divides the king and queen in the marital bed. Once Grendel has been killed, Hrothgar symbolically removes the board, but his queen, already swayed by the young hero, wants none of it (17). Hrothgar solves the problem of being childless by bequeathing his reign )and queen) to Beowulf, after his death. Once those words are spoken and the message is received and accepted, he matter of factly proceeds to fulfill his promise by unsheathing his sword (harakiri? ironic Freudian phallic symbol of his impotence?) and plunging to his death by walking off the ramparts of the mead-hall (which for the occasion resembles more Hamlets Elsinore than a Germanic mead-hall) and onto the waveswept beach below (suicide and Hamletic anachronism: 19). One is left wondering why he commits suicide brandishing his sword. The pattern of sterility and debauchery repeats itself later within the reign of Beowulf himself: this time the queen loves him, and is age-matched to him, and we have no reason to believe the marriage was not consummated this time. But many years later, when the dragon comes to plague the Danes now under Beowulfs wise rule (20), we find out that the king has had many lovers (21, the character Ursula, a young maidservant, is the last one of them), and has no heir7. Or rather, he does, but it is a son

In the original Wealhtheow mentions their two sons, l. 1183. Beowulf has no heir in the original poem either, a very important point that contributes to the somber mood of the close of the poem. After his death, the Geats are in fact afraid that their enemies



in the shape of a dragon (22), at least until his death, when he recovers a partly human semblance. As the tongue-incheek reviewer for Movie Cynics put it: Lesson Learned: Dont stick your dick in a chick with a tale [sic]. But Zemeckiss men never learn, and even old Wyglaf, the most trusted of Beowulfs men, is seen in the last scene recovering the golden goblet (23), a symbol of greed and lust, and by extension, human weakness, and staring at the sea-monster (24). He takes a few steps towards her (fully dressed but entering the water nonetheless), as she beckons to him from the waters where Beowulf funeral ship has just sunk in a blaze of glory (and we will stop counting at 25). The closing scene is surely a tribute to Polanskis 1971 Macbeth, where Malcolms younger brother Donalbain is seen as he enters the witches lair and the viewer surmises that he will presumably repeat the cycle of envy, greed, and violence that brought Macbeth to murder Duncan to seize the Scottish crown. Violence, greed, and power, entailing the bleakness of a cyclical future, are in Zemeckiss film subsumed under the paradigm of lust. Curiously enough, despite the outcries of the conservative right in the U.S. (of the Medvevs type8) that Hollywood undermines and attacks traditional values, this film seems to send a message that clearly supports traditional values, as especially embodied by the survival of Wyglaf as the new king. Violence is accepted and justified, and as long as we do not know the truth everything can and should continue as usual (exemplified by the attempted confession of his sins by Beowulf that Wyglaf refuses to listen to); sex on the other hand is to be practiced secretly, and its outcomes
will finally defeat them and death and slavery will ensue (ll.3150-5). 8 Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, Harper Collins, New York, 1992.



are shameful and mostly evil; men are lecherous pigs but they are outwardly heroic, women are whores, witches or )a small minority- saints, nothing in between. This is nothing that we have not read regarding several powerful representatives of the right-wing movement, in the U.S. at least )so Hollywood does support traditional values! But the saintliness of Wealhtheow is not enough to save the flawed (read: lustful) hero. She is seen disapproving of Hrothgars dabauched beahviour, she seems to be praying when Grendel attacks Heorot for the first time, possibly to reinforce the fact that the story is supposed to take place at a time when heathens are being converted to Christianity and there is a certain synchretism of the two religions. She is accompanied by a monk as the older woman of the last part of the film, and certainly shows the other cheek by being friendly to Beowulfs young lover, even risking her life to save her from the dragons attack. Way to go, girl! THE ORIGINAL SIGNIFICANCE

The OE scholar Hugh Magennis observes very keenly that the verb drincan to drink in Beowulf is only used in the singular once and transitively only twice. The first observation indicates the conviviality of drinking in the poem ) the only exception being when the monstrous Grendel drinks one of Beowulfs mens blood. The same example is one of the two where the object of the verb is expressed (in this case to underline the atrocity of what is being drunk, i.e. blood) and once after Grendels death when the Geats are relaxing and celebrating ) in this case, the object of drinking, wine, is probably required by alliteration (l. 1233 ws ) win ) weras ... There was the



best of feasts; / the warriors drank wine ...9). Magenniss observation clearly point to the function of drinking in Beowulf as symbolic, and not actual ) of course the film-makers need to be able to show that something is being drunk, but the feasting scenes in Zemeckiss film wildly deviate from the role that the Beowulf poet ascribed to drinking, they are much closer to the vision of Macbeths porter quoted above. In Germanic heroic poetry, it is never the act of drinking as essential to human life, that is highlighted, but rather always the communal, convivial drinking. Hence, drinking has a highly symbolic cultural value in Germanic fiction )especially in epic or heroic poetry, including OE and specifically Beowulf. It is not surprising then, that the drinking of water )as a purely physical requirement) has no place in Germanic heroic poetry. The one remarkable exception, of course, is Siegfried bending over the brook, revealing the spot that allows Hagen to kill him with his spear. Siegfried is allegedly drinking water, in reality, he is giving the Nibelungenlied poet the perfect posture to reveal all of Hagens treachery, I am arguing that it is crucial that it is water that is being drunk here: it is the one act of drinking that reveals the human side of the quasiinvincible Siegfried. Otherwise, drinking in Germanic fiction means alcoholic or manufactured drinks (mead, ale, wine, and at times sour milk or milk products in ON literature). This is not necessarily, or not solely, because of a penchant for drunkenness among the Germanic peoples, but since such drinks were more precious and reserved for special occasions than water, in literature their use has to be more symbolic than
9 Translation by H. MAGENNIS, Anglo-Saxon Appetites: Food and Drink and their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1999, 26.



actual. Magennis10 states in fact that, although there was a hierarchy of drinks, with alcoholic drinks being most appreciated (with wine, mostly an imported good, at the top), and water at the bottom, in OE poetry in general, as well as in Beowulf, the actual drink did not matter: mead, wine, ale and beer are interchangeable (often due to the requirements of metre or alliteration). What mattered was the conviviality of drinking together: celebrating victories, establishing and confirming allegiances and social hierarchies, and an occasion for the leader to demonstrate generosity (in the form of gifts and entertainment). This was part of the important ritual of reciprocity: the warriors pledged allegiance to an elected leader, by whose side they would fight in battle, and in turn the leader would recompense their efforts with gifts11. A warrior society such as the early Germanic one had little use for women in such convivia: it is not that they were banned, they were there in a subordinate role (guests or servers, depending on rank and occasion). They did not do the drinking (or at least it has not come across in the literature, except for rare exceptions). They facilitated it by pouring the drink and making speeches depending on rank. Wealhtheow in fact encourages the king to drink in

Anglo-Saxon Appetites..., p. 23. Receiving a gift was also a type of binding agreement: this meant that the receiver was somehow bound to the giver ) hence many a complicated interaction could ensue, if a gift was offered by someone towards whom the receiver did not want to be in debt. A masterful example is found in Gslis saga, when Vsteinn, brother in law of the eponymous hero Gsli, offers Thorkell (Gslis brother) precious gifts that he refuses despite various entreaties by Gsli himself. Thorkell dislikes Vsteinn because of jealousy (Thorkells wife has a soft spot for Vsteinn) and plots his death, and cannot therefore accept gifts from Vsteinn, which would imply allegiance. After much debating, Vsteinn storms out with his gifts stating that he has not come to buy his life off. He is killed later that night.




the original poem, in the celebration after Grendels death (l. 1168):
(4) Enjoy this drink, my most generous lord; raise up your goblet, entertain the Geats duly and gently, discourse with them, be open-handed, happy and fond.

In all the feast descriptions in the poem, some motifs are repeated12: drinking, the hall setting, the dignity and nobility of the participants, the attendance of serving stewards, music, the giving of gifts, the presence of women, the physical splendour of the scene, rejoicing and speeches. The two elements of gift-giving and women are not present in the initial scene, however, unlike in the film, where at least women are very prominent (in a provocative or lewd context). 2.3 THE CHARACTER OF BEOWULF AND DRINK In accordance with Germanic tradition, in the poem, Beowulf drinks in the context of feasting:
(5) l. 1019 Then Halfdanes son presented Beowulf with a gold standard as a victory gift... So Beowulf drank his drink, at ease; it was hardly a shame to be showered with such gifts in front of the hall-troops...

This is the second time the poem specifically mentions Beowulf drinking ) he accept[s] the cup from Wealhtheow (l. 628) in the first feast ) and in (5) after his fight with Grendel and the monsters death. Again, it is a

MAGENNIS , Images of Community in Old English Poetry, Cambridge, 1996, p. 62.




ritualised type of drinking, mentioned at the same time as gift-giving, the important symbol of reciprocity in Germanic warrior culture. In the film, however, Beowulf mentions ) albeit halfjocularly ) drinking immediately upon arrival in the kings presence: Ive come to kill your monster... and to taste your mead. To which the queen replies that many have come to taste her lords mead, but they have not been so successful as to kill the monster. Beowulf insists that I have drunk nothing yet, but I will kill your monster. Both in the poem and in the film, Beowulfs official motive for seeking to kill the monster is fame. If we die it will be for glory, not for gold says Beowulf in the film. Fame earned during a mans lifetime is )in Germanic culture) the equivalent of immortality. In this sense, to be fair, the film is faithful to tradition (as embodied for instance in the sayings of the Hvaml, The Words of the High One i.e. Odin) and to the poem. The gnomic poetry of Hvaml is also very explicit in chastising excessive drinking, not as an unhealthy habit of course, but because it brings loss of dignity, it entails lack of restraint and betrays foolishness. Beowulf seems to embody these common sense virtues in regard to drinking, as expressed in his exchange with Unferth, Hrothgars Counsellor, both in the poem and this film. Drink (and possibly envy) is, in fact, singled out as the cause for Unferths taunting of Beowulf at the first feast ) this the hero recognises both in the poem and in the film: I find it difficult to argue with a drunk says the character in the film, which roughly parallels Heaneys ...Well, friend Unferth, you have had your say about Breca and me. But it was mostly beer that was doing the talking (l. 530). Perhaps drunk in the film is worse, implying that this is a habit of Unferths, whereas the exchange is clearly stylised in the poem, it is a kind of flyting, like the verbal



tauntings found in Old Irish and Old Norse poetry (MacDaths Pig and Lokasenna are just two of several examples from each tradition respectively). However, Beowulf in Zemeckiss film proceeds to lie about why he lost a swimming contest with his friend Breca: with considerable dramatic irony, the viewers see Beowulf dropping his sword while he fights with a seamonster resembling more a mermaid than a leviathan. At the same time Beowulf is heard declaring I killed the monster with my own blade, which can only be interpreted metaphorically and opens the door to lust as the main mans flaw in the film. In the poem, none of this )except for an actual fight with sea monsters) can be surmised as being the reason why Beowulf lost the swimming contest with Breca. Unlike in the Porters speech in Macbeth, lust and drinking do not go together in the character of Beowulf in the film, but lust, desiring the kings wife and lying certainly do (depending on sources, all can be considered deadly sins). Beowulf also lies again about Grendels mothers death: I plunged my sword into her chest... again and again he states rather predictably, since the audience has seen him give in to the beauty of Angelina Jolie-turnedsea-witch. The result will be the second scourge of the Danes, the semi-human dragon. Beowulfs lust is hinted at both when he unnecessarily sends the poor enthralled queen scurrying out of the meadhall by stripping almost naked before her (the demon has no weapon he states ) and therefore he will fight with his bare hands, and when he strips almost naked to descend into the sea-witchs cave. The bare-handed fight with Grendel is taken from the poem, but the film takes bare to the next level, i.e. Beowulf fights literally naked ) to secure a PG-13 rating of the film, during the considerably long fight scene, there always manages to be an object



accidentally covering Beo wulfs genitals in frontal images )needless to say the result is rather ludicrous. The contrast with another naked fight scene is inevitable, even if the result could not be more different: the sensuality and involvement the viewer feels when watching the masterful sauna fight scene involving Viggo Mortensens character in Cronenbergs Eastern Promises (Focus Features, 2007). This fight scene shows at the same time how beautiful bodies can be and what kind of brutal hard work it is to kill someone. GRENDEL AND DRINKING Again one has to wonder if Beowulf meant no weapon as no genitals about Grendel, since in the film we have seen that sword very often means phallus. That the monster has no genitals is actually commented on later during the fight in an exchange between Beowulf and his loyal companion Wyglaf. The human or demonic character of Grendel brings me to the last section on Zemeckiss film. Grendel in the poem is clearly a he (OE distinguishes three genders, and Grendel is not neuter), and yet this does not mean he is human. There is absolutely no moment in the poem when we doubt of the demonic nature of Grendel: his first attack is in response to hearing not just the merry-making in the mead-hall (l. 86), but also the
(6) l. 90 song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of mans beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendour He set the sun and the moon to be the earths lamplight, lanterns for men...



He is described from his first appearance as a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark (l. 86), a fiend out of hell (l. 100) and is constantly associated with darkness, just as in the passage above God is associated with light. And just as the mead-hall represents civilisation13 and order, his cave is the negation of the first. Whatever is human in the Danes is countered by some aspect of Grendels bestiality14. He has no motive whatsoever in the poem to hate and envy the Danes, other than they are creatures of God and he is not. In this sense he is truly of Cains progeny, he is an outcast from the realm of God and the good. His motives are therefore hatred and envy, which are the same that brought Cain to kill his brother in the Biblical story. Roger Avery, one of the script-writers, is stated as interpreting Cains progeny very literally15:
(7) It occurred to me that Grendel has always been described as the son of Can meaning half-man, half-demon, but his mother was always said to be full demon. So who's the father? It must be Hrothgar, and if Grendel is dragging men back to the cave then it must be for the mother, so that she can attempt to sire another of demonkind16.

If one accepts the complex background of the poem as written by a Christian author using ancient Germanic motifs, historical events and folk-lore for a medieval Christian audience, then of course there is no need for this

MAGENNIS, Images of Community in... See for instance Magenniss poignant discussion (Anglo-Saxon Appetites...) of the use of the verbs eten (eat as reserved for humans) and freten (eat ravenously, gulp down usually reserved for animals, as in the modern German cognates essen/fressen). 15 Also reported in the Wikipedia article on the film: Beowulf_(2007_film) 16 In T. AMBROSE, He Is Legend, Empire, December 2007, pp. 139142.



over-interpretation. The medieval mind accepted that there was an order sanctioned by God and that it could be subverted by the enemies of God, who were by definition evil, without any further need to refine their motives17. That Grendel is evil in the poem we know also by his type of eating and drinking. If the Germanic mead-hall drinking was a refined and symbolic activity of communion, Grendels eating human flesh and drinking the warriors blood is not only at the antipodes of Germanic culture, it is also the most repugnant act in medieval Christian conception, as inherited from the Old Testament18. Tearing the flesh and drinking the war riors blood puts Grendel on a par with animals, specifically dangerous animals living on the outskirts of civilisation and preying upon it when least expected. In this sense, Grendel shares these characteristics with the wolf, ON vargr, which was perhaps not surprisingly also a term used for outlaws, dangerous criminals living far from the civilised world of the mead-halls. Mortuum refare, or Wealreaf, the profanation of corpses was a particularly heinous crime in AngloSaxon England (as attested by the laws in the Quadripartitus, 189219. His eating and drinking, it has been suggested, may have indeed been the most problematic aspects of Grendel because they are what he shares with humans20 )his mother, all demon, is never mentioned eating or drinking. The shame is then not Grendels alleged human father,
See J.W. EARL, The Necessity of Evil in Beowulf, South Atlantic Bulletin, 44 (1979), esp. pp. 85-86. 18 MAGENNIS, Anglo-Saxon Appetites..., esp. notes 25, 26. This author also notes the irony of this type of feasting on human bodies carried out in the Germanic mead-hall, as if it were an anti-feasting. 19 F. LIEBERMANN, Quadripartitus: ein englisches Rechts buch von 1114, Max Niemeyer, Halle. 20 MAGENNIS, Anglo-Saxon Appetites...



but the fact that by their eating and drinking, humans are closer to animals than to God) a thought that was surely problematic in the Middle Ages, and that Magennis suggests (id.) may be at the basis for the OE poets reticence about food and drink. This, it should be noticed, stands in marked contrast with Old Irish literature )where food and drink, and the consumption thereof, are described in much detail) albeit usually in works that can be interpreted in some aspects as satyrizing the so-called high literature, such as MacDathos Pig (part of the Ulster Cycle), or )in ON- Thrymskvida (part of the Poetic Edda). HEROIC IDEALS AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ANACHRONISM IN BEOWULF AND GRENDEL (2005) I will briefly explore the missing 25 ways in which this other film deviates from the original poem. Most notably, Gunnarssons film parallels Zemeckiss in overexplaining motives (1). As the opening titles roll, in the background a medieval-looking map of The Northern Seas serves as background and anchors the action between Geatland (southern Sweden) and Daneland (contemporary Denmark) at the beginning of the sixth century. The film opens on the extended flood-plains of southern Iceland21 (2), where the viewers are told that A Hate is Born. A band of warriors headed by the Danish king Hrothgar as a young(er) man kills a giant (3), who has a child that witnesses the event (4). The king spares the child22, unbeknownst to the
21 Very recognizably so, one cannot but notice the numerous ironic implications of the written statement opening the scene that the action takes place in the outskirts of Daneland. 22 Children in these contexts are historically never spared to avoid feeding the cycle of revenge (not even the two sons of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, beheaded with their father Jn Arason in 1550...). This is important for the motivation of Grendels actions and is possibly a tribute to Hrafn Gunnlaugssons cod-western film



other warriors, and the child in turn grows up to be Grendel the troll. In the poem Grendel is not referred to as a troll (4), but he is referred to as eoten (ON jtunn), i.e. a giant ) one cannot but notice the connection between the role of the giants as enemies of the Norse gods, and the connection the Beowulf poem draws between Cains progeny and all of the chthonic beings of Germanic mythology connected to the natural (as opposed to civilised) world:
(7) l. 109 Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants [eotenas] too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward. [i.e. the flood]

Eoten is also related to the root of the English verb to eat, and Grendel, whose name may literally mean Grinder (of bones), is therefore connected to the ravenous, animal eating of the OE freten, rather than the more civilised, human eten (see again MAGENNIS, Anglo-Saxon Appetites... on this point). In the 2005 film, Gunnarsson finds a powerful visual solution to bring home the bestiality of Grendel ) though in other ways he stresses the human side too (5). Both Grendel, as his giant father before him, literally sniff out their enemies (6). This spares the viewer a considerable amount of blood and gore, which is in the

Hrafninn flgur (When the Raven Flies, 1984), where a similar episode brings about a number of revenge killings when an Irish child spared by a viking raider grows up to find and kill his parents killers.



poem and not in this film (7), substituted by a selfflagellating kind of ritual that Grendel operates on himself before he sets out on a killing spree (he hits his head repeatedly with a stone until he bleeds profusely, 8). In Gunnarssons film, Grendel acts in revenge for his fathers killing23 (9), and this is the secret that Hrothgar, broken and depressed because he cannot defend his people as an older man (10), insistently keeps from a particularly inquisitive Beowulf (11): If there is anything you need to tell me, now would be the time says the hero, played by a convincing Gerard Butler, in his natural Glaswegian brogue talking to Hrothgar before the night falls. In the poem, women act their part according to old Germanic custom: the queen completes and supports her husband, an epitome of the civilised Germanic world, but her behaviour is also attuned to the Christian ideal of the poet. Grendels mother, however, as the queen of the chaotic and natural world of evil beings, acts in perfect accordance with the Germanic idea of revenge as retribution. Beowulf voices the Germanic heroic ideals more than once in the poem, both in his search for glory through action, and while he tries to cheer up Hrothgar who mourns the death of Aeschere, his counsellor, killed by Grendels mother:
(8) l. 1384 Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.

This is exactly what Grendels mother does: she lashes out against the Danes both in the poem, and in

In the poem, Grendel and his mother are literally called fatherless creatures (l.1355), to stress their supernatural origins.




Gunnarssons film ) regardless of ethnicity or religion. In the 2005 film, in fact, she kills the Irish preacher (12) who has managed to convert a number of Danes (13), among whom also the depressed Hrothgar himself and Unferth, who is an unhappy survivor of Grendels first slaughter (14). Far from being saints or whores, women in Gunnarssons film are dignified agents. The queen stands by her man, so to speak, and sometimes takes the reins of command (15), other women present at the first banquet are coquettish but not lewd. The queen tells Beowulf that these women are widows... widows far too early (16), indicating one more reason why the troll has to be killed24. The other woman that is prominent in the film is Selma the Witch, who sees how men die (17). She has a son with Grendel (18), who has acted as her protector against the Danes after one carnal encounter with her (19). The Danes, she says, are those whod fuck me and then cut my throat. The witch is human, but has supernatural powers of clairvoyance. She is an intriguing connection between the natural world of magic, of the chthonic beings such as Grendel and his mother (she refuses to live at court), and the so-called civilised world represented by the mead-hall and the social hierarchy of warriors, queen and king. The most barbaric butchering of the poem by Gunnarssons film lies undoubtedly in his psychologically sophisticated reading of the kings and Beowulfs characters (20). It should be stressed that the masterful performances of Gunnarssons four main actors make it difficult to call his version of Beowulf a butchering, which is maintained here only as a tongue-in-cheek misnomer for deviation

Her comments are reminiscent of the saloon owners explanation of the many widows victims of the feud between the Baxters and the Rojo families in Sergio Leones For a Fistful of Dollars (United Artists, 1964).




from the original and for balance with the first part of the paper25. Beowulf insists in finding out more about the background of Grendels actions (21). Contrarily to the poem, where Grendel is demonic and evil through and through, in Gunnarssons film Beowulf is shocked to find that Grendel mimicks and uses a garbled, barely intelligible form of language, understood and translated by Selma the Witch (22). This idea is taken up again in Zemeckiss film where a similarly simplified, but more intelligible form of OE-like utterances are placed in the pitiful, leper-like mouth of Grendel, who )when trapped) looks more like a disabled, seriously diseased person than a demon, especially when he says ic non demon or some such gibberish. He also speaks to his mother in Zemeckiss film, who chides him unconvincingly for eating humans and not goats or other animals. In Gunnarssons film, this use of language is what shocks Beowulf, since it is what connects Grendel to humans ) after all we are the only species capable of using this highly sophisticated system of oral (or visual) symbols for communication. Grendels motivation for killing as revenge (23) clears a secure spot in Beowulfs Germanic system of beliefs: in this film, Grendel spares all who are not Danes, hence his elusiveness in fighting the Geats, who, as Selma explains, have done nothing to him. This is why Hondscio in this film is only killed (and much less barbarously than in the poem, 24) after he has viciously defiled Grendels fathers skull (and memory). As we know, defiling a corpse

Selma the Witch is a good character but the performance of Sarah Polley pales when compared to Stellan Skarsgrds as King Hrothgar, Ingvar E. Sigurdssons as Grendel, Steinunn lna Thorsteinsdttirs as Wealhtheow, and Gerard Butlers as Beowulf.




was a punishable offence in Anglo-Saxon Laws (Quadripartitus). Beowulf drinks with measure in this film, the drinking is never underlined (as it behooved OE conventions), except in the drunkenness of the King, which is ascribed to depression in Beowulf and Grendel. Lust is never mentioned in this film (except for the Danes that rape Selma repeatedly, with Unferth among them), although sexual desire is expressed by Grendel once when he lays with Selma, and by Beowulf and Selma both, when they are also shown making love, but it is never shown in a lewd or lecherous light. The 50th way to leave your Beowulf butchered, and the th 25 in this film, however, has to be the respect that Beowulf acquires for his dead enemy, Grendel, once he has found out more about his life story and beliefs. Beowulf, in fact, builds a cairn on the beach where Grendel dragged himself to die (brought into his mothers watery cave by her ghostly hand), and tells Grendels son to be proud of his dead father. As a consequence of these actions, the son seems to accept that Beowulf is not to be persecuted as the object of revenge and that his father died an acceptable death, underscored by his mothers obvious fondness for the hero. The lesson learned in this case seems to be that tolerance is the virtue to be practiced that can break the vicious circle of gratuitous violence and revenge. And this tolerance is contagious: on the ship that takes the warriors back to Geatland, Breca explains to a companion that the bard is comparing Grendel to Cain in his song because Grendel and Cain are both killers: to which his companion retorts we all are and therefore the bards tale is shit.



CONCLUSIONS Let us recapitulate: through drinking and debauchery, Zemeckiss film teaches us that sex only exists as lust and that lust drives all bad human actions, that violence is justified against those that are different from us unless they stay out of our human ways, and that there is no way of breaking the cycle of lust-violence-power-greed-deathrevenge. Drinking in Gunnarssons Beowulf and Grendel )which is rated R) is shown in moderation as an essentially convivial activity, just as in the original poem, with the exception of hrothgars indulgence in drinking when despairing at his impotence against grendel's fury. Gunnarssons film tells us that the marks of a real hero are moderation, tolerance, avoidance of gratuitous violence and trying to understand that those who seem superficially different from us are really not so different after all. Intolerance and lack of understanding are the real cause of many human problems, which can be overcome not by blindly adhering to the old ways (Grendels mother, Hondscio, Breca), nor illogically converting to a new religion out of despair (Hrothgar and Unferth), but by making an effort to know and understand, as well as through generosity. Which way of butchering a medieval poem would you rather have? Lets toast to that!